Archives For Words and Rabble

Dear John,

Well, you should have all the far-flung children home now, and I know you’re taking the week off. I bet you guys will see a pile of movies and eat more than a pile of food. I think one of the signs of mature friendship is taking genuine joy in your friend’s joy. I’m grinning ear to ear thinking of the swell in your chest when you woke this morning (at 4:30 or so, I imagine?) and remembered what these next few days bring. I bet even ol’ Jack had an extra spring in his step when he trotted out into the frosty cold this morning to do his business.

I always love this turn. Thanksgiving: the week of thanks. Last night, I met with a few folks who do dinner and swap stories on Sunday evenings. We usually open with the evening hours, but this week we took a cue from one of the refrains from the Psalms (“God’s steadfast love endures forever”) and prayed our own words of gratitude. Sometimes, you try this sort of thing and it feels forced. Sometimes you try it, and there’s a little there but it dies out quickly, which is fine. Last night, however, the gratitude kept coming and kept coming. I actually didn’t have much to say myself, but I soaked up all the thanks around me.

Gratitude releases something in us, I believe. It’s an important discipline. When our heart is fearful or cold or stodgy, when we feel resistant toward others or suspicious or envious, gratitude somehow shakes some of this loose – or starts to shake some of this loose. Today, I’m thankful for the Mocha Irish Cream Cake with Irish Cream frosting Miska made for my birthday. I’m thankful for two boys who kept checking in with me about my birthday, wanting to make sure I was enjoying myself and that I knew they loved me. I’m thankful for this perennial with blazing red-orange leaves that sits right outside the window where I write; yesterday the wind was whipping these fiery leaves back and forth and for a split moment, I was alarmed because I thought there were flames in front of our house. I’m thankful for Rick Bass’ Winter that I’ll be diving into soon. I’m thankful for this massive pile of wood from our downed Ash in the front yard and for how I’m going to feel like a gen-u-ine Lumberjack splitting these logs. I’m thankful I have you for a friend. I’m thankful for a handful of other friends, men and women who are dear to me and who help me stay eyes-open in this world. I’m thankful to God who gives all these good gifts and so many more.

And you know, today, I want to say how thankful I am to the folks who read our words. It’s strange sometimes putting these letters out here in the open. We write these letters to one another, but we also offer them in this place because we hope others might find them helpful or encouraging. All of us who write need folks who actually read what we offer and think it’s worth something. We need folks to buy the books and share us with their friends, folks who give us a thumbs up every now and then and tell us to keep at it. I’m thankful for those folks, and I know you are too.

So we’ll watch some of the Macy’s Parade Thursday morning, and I’ll remember my Grandma Oden and how I’d watch it with her and then when I lived far away, how I’d call her to make sure she had it on. Then we’ll suit up for the famous Collier Turkey Bowl football game, with neighbors. Then we’ll gorge ourselves on ham and stuffing and honey apple cake (no turkey for us) and say our thanks. We’ll watch a little more football, eat a little more food, say a little more thanks. It’ll be grand.

 

Your Friend,
Winn

Dear John, 

I saw the photo of the three college amigos sitting on your couch, and they all looked happy. I know you and Mer were happy to have them there, though I suspect you gulped a few times when you saw the cashier ringing up the piles of food on each trip you made to King Soopers. We have that gulping experience often now with these young turks filling our house with testosterone and appetites. I, like you, am so glad to plop down the cash for groceries and sneakers and braces and burritos and jeans and deodorant (lots) and more groceries and then more sneakers followed by more groceries, Still, I am looking forward to the day when Wyatt and Seth are grown and footing the bill themselves and look back on these days and say, “I had no idea…” I’ve been looking back at my mom and dad a lot recently and thinking “I had no idea…”

Well, today’s the day the Big Tree’s coming down. It’s an ash, more than 100 years old, a real massive, regal tree. I’m sad to see it go. We never named this great tree, probably because we knew we wouldn’t have it for long and didn’t want to grow too attached. He has a twin who’s still strong and healthy, and I’ve christened the twin Stogie. Miska doesn’t like the name at all, doesn’t seem noble enough or earthy enough or something. I think we’re going to plant a Weeping Willow back near this spot, but I’ll clear the name with Miska this time. I’ve learned my lesson. Anyway, the tree crew arrived early this morning, and they are having a time out there. The guy up top, maybe 30 feet high, is cutting and whooping, and the boss man’s giving fist bumps to his compadre as they’re feeding limbs into the chipper. That chipper’s something, like Jaws just chomping and cracking those burly limbs like they’re nothing more than toothpicks. It’s good to see folks good at their work and taking such pleasure in it. 

A few hours ago, my friend Tom the master carpenter stopped by. He’s going to take a large hunk of the tree and build us a bench. This tree has been part of this property, providing joy and comfort, for more than a century, and it’s going to continue to do the same for decades more. Tom and I talked trees and carpentry, but then, as we typically do, we began to talk about life, about what we see in the world. We both see, as you mentioned, a lot of passions and a lot of fire (a lot of anger). What saddens me most about our current state of affairs is that we are losing our ability to truly hear the other. We are dividing and taking sides and building motes around our enclaves in ways that are ripping apart our common life (and I use common life in both senses: our shared life and our ordinary life – we’re destroying both). It’s like we’re all being tossed into that chipper and crushed to smithereens. I know that, at least on paper, somebody wins (elections, culture wars, theological arguments); but I don’t believe that the way we’re going about all this, anybody wins at all. We’re throwing one another, and ourselves, into these steel jaws of death grinding us down until there’s nothing left except, I guess, a mess of good mulch for starting over and growing something new. And maybe that’s the hope here, that somehow after we’ve razed things to the ground, we’ll see our folly and start to build something new, something that is really of course very, very old. I sure wish we could wake up first and not torch the whole thing. I do.    

In the meantime, though, we do things like say goodbye to good trees and make benches for sitting in the shade and thinking and welcoming friends. We give out candy to the neighborhood ghouls and minions. We wait for our children to make the journey home and we make trips to King Soopers with fat wallets that will quickly grow skinny. We write friends letters to remind one another we’re not crazy, that we believe in goodness — that we believe in this goodness very much.  

 

Your Friend,

Winn

Polling stationThe Pharisees of the New Testament have come too easily to be synonymous with “hypocrite,” which is more than a little unfair. The Pharisees were the ones who, amid an imploding world, kept the faith. And in the story Jesus told in Luke 18, the Pharisee was an upstanding fellow. He didn’t gouge his customers for profit, didn’t sneak around on his wife, didn’t do underhanded deals. His word was his bond; he was the sort of fellow you wanted as your neighbor, your business partner – heck, your pastor. The other fellow in the story, however, was a real scoundrel, a shady tax collector. He was, in the words of Robert Capon: “the worst kind of crook: a legal one, a big operator, a mafia-style enforcer…living for years on the cream he’s skimmed off other people’s milk money.” He was “a fat cat who drives a stretch limo, drinks nothing but Chivas Regal, and never shows up at a party without at least two $500-a-night call girls in tow.”

So the Pharisee was a good fellow, but as the story goes, he was so very full of himself, so very self-righteous, that he didn’t think he had any need for grace. The tax collector, however, was a wreck. He’d hit bottom and knew he was in a bad way. The Pharisee, because he was so drunk on his own goodness, spurned the grace he needed. The tax collector, because he could not keep up the charade of his own goodness, opened himself wide to let the grace pour in.

Of course, perhaps this is all humdrum and some of us are getting restless because I’ve hinted that this story might have something to say about a certain electoral engagement soon approaching. Well, there’s a word in this story that has not received appropriate attention: contempt. Jesus tells us that this Pharisee felt contempt for the tax-collector. To feel contempt is to disdain another, to regard them as nothing. To pour contempt on another is to dehumanize them, to reject their value and beauty as an image bearer of God. In Jesus’ eyes, contempt was the Pharisee’s severe brand of self-righteousness. But here’s the thing about self-righteousness: it makes us feel so good, so smart, so quick with the cutting wit; it make us feel superior, part of the right crowd, part of the righteous crowd. And yet it leads us into a dark hole. When we feed our contempt for another human, we drink deep from a bitter cup. We gulp in the soul’s poison.

There are, to be sure, many serious matters to be weighed with this election. There are issues of grave concern threatening severe consequences. We ought to think hard and promote ideas that are true and just and healing. But whatever comes on election day, if we’ve surrendered our shared humanity, we have surrender far too much. If we are people of faith and yet our political opinion evidences contempt for other women and men God dearly loves (in spite of who they’re voting for), then our faith, in this instance, has gone dead. It’s one thing to disagree with Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton or those who support them – but contempt is something entirely different. Our contempt might feel so good in the moment. It may gain us some of those coveted thumbs up on FB or knowing chuckles at the office – but contempt will destroy our souls.

We can not say we are fighting a righteous cause or a just cause if we lie about another human, if we slander another human, if we degrade another human’s dignity. The truth as we see it may be pointed, it may even sting – but if we become contemptuous, we really need to pause and look deep in our soul.

Smith Lake Trail, MT

Cairn on Swift Creek Trail up toward Smith Lake | Whitefish, MT

After meandering several hours through Swift Creek Trail’s old growth (Hemlocks, Larches and Ponderosa Pines) while walking to the rhythm of the woodpecker’s rat-a-tat-tat, I climbed through a cool, dense section and spied a cairn atop the knoll. Cairns have become one of my favorite encounters on any tramp through the woods. I like to stop and add a pebble atop the mound, to mark that I too have passed this way, to offer quiet thanks for the land and the sky and the trees.

Cairns are far more than ornamental. On more than one occasion, they have rescued this directionally-challenged fellow from a cold, dark night stranded only God-knows-where. On our walk through the Scottish Highlands a couple years ago, cairns dotted the way, granite fingers pointing us through eerie, moss-covered forest. Last summer hiking down Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park, the route cut across vast slabs of slick rock with no trail markers other than cairns, like lighthouses, guiding the way.

Cairns tell us that we are not alone, that others have walked this lonesome path and that if we’ll just keep putting one foot in front of the other, we’ll make it – do not fear, we’ll make it. Cairns appear along the trail only enough to keep us from getting entirely lost; they are scattered, keeping us watchful, curious, a little uncertain, always scanning for signs of hope. Cairns don’t remove the struggle or the adventure; they certainly don’t map out the miles ahead. But they do tell us to keep on trudging. They gives us signs from those who’ve gone before us, and they invite us to leave signs for still others who will follow. Cairns tell us the night will not devour us. Cairns lead us home.

At our old house, we have a small cairn beside both our front door and our back door, our beacons of hope. One more step, friends. One more tiny bit, sons we love. One more act of courage, weary souls. You can make it. You’re almost home.

odd-solitary-rust-fence-piece

John Updike says he’s in complete control of his characters; he actually crafts the final sentence first, pins it up on his cork board and then writes his novel toward that finale. In direct contrast, Per Petterson says he has no control whatsoever over his characters and considers it cheating not to tell the readers whatever he knows as soon as he knows it (“you have to empty the well so you can fill it up again,” Per says). The point here is not to take sides, to become an Updikian or a Pettersonian (or a Steinbeckian or Lamottian or whatever). Rather, the point is that there is no one way to tell your story, either the fictional kind or the grind-of-life kind.

There is no one way to raise kids or build a life or do good in this world. It takes little courage to mimic another genius or wise soul. However, it requires much courage, as well as much skill and tenacity and chutzpah, to tell us your story the one way you have to tell it. There are lots of vehement voices these days insisting that the wise or just person must unequivocally see what they see, respond how they respond, get riled up the way they get riled up. Some of these folks are well-meaning, some are blowhards. Either way, you or I couldn’t possibly take on, in the same measure, everyone’s angst, couldn’t possibly take on everyone else’s top priority as our own. We must pay attention to the fire simmering in our own heart, must doggedly guard that place where we bear unique responsibility. You can’t tell another person’s story. We do, however, really, really need you to tell your own.

 

Dear John,

You know, we’re right behind you; we’ve just enjoyed the initial nip of Autumn over here in Virginia as well. For the first time this morning on my run, the air carried that crispness that makes me almost giggly inside. Mercy, I love this time of year. I love all kinds of times of the year, but this is hands down top shelf for me. Our Japanese Maples will start blushing soon, then commence their strip tease while our massive Tulip Poplar (his name is Ol’ Beard) will get all excited and puff out his chest and go fiery yellow and orange. I imagine Ol’ Beard winking at the Maples and saying, How you like that, ladies? We’ve already had two trips up the mountain for apples – and planning a third this week because the good folks at Carter’s Orchard promised me the Candy Crisps would be ready. Have you ever enjoyed the rapturous pleasure of locking your jaws on a Candy Crisp? They’re similar to Honey Crisp, only crisper and sweeter. It’s like plucking an apple pie straight off the tree. 

The chilled air and bright sunshine gave me, at least to the third mile, a new spring in my stride this morning – which is saying something because sleep was less than abundant this weekend. On top of writing work I needed to get done and final touches on a sermon, I decided to force a final last stand with those snakes you and I have talked about. I won’t go into the gritty details, but the picture you saw pretty much sums it up. With goggles, caulk gun and hoe, I went to war. I’m happy to report that it appears I am the victor. However, Miska and I also tackled another DIY project, installing a new light fixture in Seth’s room. It was a simple affair, should have taken no more than 30 minutes. Three hours later, after installing and uninstalling the light 3 times and after checking and re-checking the wiring (I mean, black to black and white to white, how freaking difficult can this be, Sherlock?) and after traipsing up and down from the cellar to our breaker box God knows how many times where I scratched my head while flipping the power on and off, I was forlorn and despondent. “Wait,” I asked Miska, “do we have the light switch on?” Yup, the whole time I thought the fixture wasn’t working, we’d failed to turn the dang thing on. 

I hear you on the whole iPhone headphone jack kerfuffle. Do you think that since we’ve learned we should be always poised and ready to pounce on some outrage that maybe we’ve lost all bearings on reality and now must have our daily outrage fix or we get jittery? If I’m honest, though, I didn’t much like the Apple gods doing away with the little hole — but only because I’m cheap. Those cute Minnie Mouse earbuds never work in my ears, and I’ve got a pile of old fashioned corded earphones that work just fine thank you. I don’t like them forcing me to purchase yet another pair just because they want to go all sleek and shiny. Of course, this assumes I’ll actually lay my cold cash down for another iPhone, which is not a safe assumption since they now cost as much as a used car.

I’m glad you read Kalanithi’s story. I read it last summer when we were in Denver (remember those days? man, that was a blast). The book was difficult to read, so soon after my mom died of cancer, but I was thankful for his courage. Wasn’t it remarkable how his whole life, even long before sickness hit him, scratched after answering this question: “What makes life meaningful enough to go on living?” He posed that question multiple times, and I think you’re absolutely right – this is another way of asking “What are the things you love, and how will you live in fidelity to those things you love?” I love Candy Crisp apples with thin slices of pepper jack cheese or a dollop of Trader Joe’s crunchy peanut butter. I love watching those Maples and Ol’ Beard set the yard aflame and laughing my arse off with Miska after we realize we never flipped on the dang switch and listening to that gravely Johnny Cash who, even though he was a rebel, often sang with a tear in his voice. I love two boys who consume an entire large Pizza Hut pizza each for dinner, and I love friends who write letters that remind me of how good this world is, and how good it is to have a friend to share it with. 

You know, we could do something with this idea of sharing the things we love. We could even sit down and chat about it and record it and put it out there just for kicks. I hear folks are doing stuff like that these days.

Well, in a few days Miska and I fly off to the Big Easy to celebrate 19 years of wedded bliss. Friends generously hooked us up with a little apartment down in the French Quarter. They say the locals don’t wait in line at Cafe Du Monde but just slip right into a table, so we’ll do that. I hope they’re shooting us straight and we don’t get the stink eye. They also say the apartment’s balcony offers a fine perch for people watching, so maybe I’ll have something good to tell you about when we get back. 

 

Your Friend,

Winn

 

chair and two umberellas
Not long ago, a friend referred to the beauty and sturdiness of “unfettered friendship.” Though he did not explain what he meant, I hear this as a friendship where there are no strings attached, where one feels the freedom to be their full selves without fearing reprisal or shame, where there are no expectations someone has to meet in order to be fully welcomed. We take whatever the other has to give, and we are grateful. And we let the other off the hook for all those things we wish they could give us but are simply unable to provide right now.

This, as I understand it, is not a soft friendship — because if nothing is on the line for us, we are emboldened to be present without the anxieties that would make us always watch our words or say things just right or make sure we’ve got the intellectual artillery to back up whatever our opinion might be. We’re just ourselves, and we trust that our unfettered friends love us as ourselves – and that our friend will at times see us better than we see us, that their eyes may be clear when ours go foggy, their hope sturdy when ours wavers. Then, of course, when life turns, as it inevitably does, we’ll switch sides.

In these worn, leather-rich friendships, we can take a load off because both of us expect the other’s courage to rise up on our behalf. We expect that whenever we wander too far (and knowing what constitutes “too far” is a skill better left in the hands of gentle, unflustered souls), our friend will come find us, without recrimination or loading us up with heavy-handed garbage. Our friend will come alongside us and ask if we want to come back home. These friendships ground us in our life. They makes us truer women and men. These friendships allow us to breathe again.

 

image: “two umbrellas and a chair” by Manu Praba

I wonder how so many of us can sit in the same office suite with someone for decades, or sit on a pew in a church in the company of others for year after year, or sleep in a bed with one to whom we profess love, and yet know so little about their longings, their joys, their fears. How is it possible that we could live with ourselves for literally every day of our life and not know our own true desires and wounds and pleasures? How can we live as such strangers, to ourselves and to others, in this magnificent life we’ve been given?

Maybe we know more than we tell, only we have real difficulty knowing what to do with such intimate knowledge. It can be a fearful thing to carry tenderness and hope with you in such a snarling world. How do we move toward another when self-protective distance and a warped kind of self-reliance controls our narratives? How do we offer ourselves without apology but also without constantly scanning the room (or the comments section or the Twitter feed) to judge whether or not we’ve been accepted, whether or not we’ll have the grit to venture further down this uninhibited, self-forgetful path?

Willie Nelson refers to his life’s story as the history of his heart. I like that. Whenever I ask someone to tell me about their life, I’m wanting more than only the biological and geographical storyline. I’m also wanting to know how these places and triumphs and disasters, these loves and these disappointments, these plodding stretches and jolts of wild adrenaline, have formed that beautiful and unique fabric that makes them them.

Each of us are living the history of our heart. I hope we will have the courage to be faithful to this history, to see our life in all of its scuffed and lurching brilliance, to see others for the beauty of their unique history as well.

Jim Dollar

There is a kind of energy that flows out of the deep reservoirs of hope, faith and love; then there is a kind of energy that spews from the churning lava beds of fear, self-protection and anger. There is a posture of curiosity, good will and honor toward the other; then there is a posture of presumption, suspicion and damnation of the other. There is a yearning for healing and self-sacrifice; then there is a yearning for victory and personal (or tribal) triumph. There is a way of generosity; then there is a way of suspicion.

We can search for ammunition, or we can search for common ground. We can labor to discover the very best about another, or we can grasp after any conspiratorial hint of the very worst about another. We can live by narrow absolutism (all or nothing, my view of the facts is unassailable, any wise or noble or spiritual person must see it my way, etc) or we can grapple with the tensions of living in a complex world with complex questions and (sometimes) very befuddling answers. We can remain tenaciously committed to our shared human dignity, or we can succumb to our basest instincts and debase ourselves with a craven lust to win, no matter the cost.

There is a way of death, and there is a way of life. Call me a fool, but I believe (yes, even now) that goodness calls to us. Perhaps her voice is even stronger, more potent, distinct as she is amid the cacophonic braggadocio and screeching vexation. She’s a steady voice, humming a haunting, hopeful tune.

 

photography: Acadia coastline shot by Jim Dollar

I once heard Martin Marty explain how he believed we are arriving at a place where the theological divisions among Christians will no longer be classified primarily as liberal and conservative but rather as mean and not mean. While our religious convictions express our noble attempts to understand (and be faithful to) the triune God, any conviction that does not reflect the generous way of Jesus immediately reveals itself as a fraud. Sometimes it seems we’re overrun with religious blowhards (across the spectrum) whose every syllable drips with sarcasm, anger and scorn (not to mention ignorance, if not outright dishonesty, about the words and positions of those we despise). Thumping our Bible does not give us a pass on being a Grade A prig.

Note: “Speaking the truth in love” actually requires love. Even if I speak with the wisdom and authority of angels – if I don’t have love – then I’m doing nothing but clanging those cymbals. Have you ever heard someone (and it’s usually a child) just banging away on those blasted cymbals, like a hammer pounding your brain? Obnoxious, isn’t it?

I think Marty’s observation also makes sense for most every form of our public discourse. I wonder if our political divides may, if the current debasement holds, become less democrat/republican and more mean/not mean. Like many, I’ve come to loathe election season because it reveals the very worst about us as a people, our seeming inability to carry on a meaningful conversation about important ideals – a conversation exuding generosity rather than venom, a conversation eager to understand rather than merely score a kill, a conversation where we see the other as a beloved fellow human rather than an impersonal object or a despised enemy. We are so fearful, our patience so razor thin. It only takes a word, an image – and a hundred cat fights break out.

I’m an optimist, I suppose, but I believe that many of us will come to our senses. The antidote to meanness is, of course, the simplest thing: kindness. Kindness does not signal we’ve gone weak. Rather, when kindness takes root, it tells us we’ve abandoned our childish ways and let courage take root. We’ve learned we have no need to vilify another. We stand in the truth we understand, and we seek to understand more (and who knows how this will change us?). We’ve learned that meanness will only ruin us. We know now that if we fight savagely for some ideal, then even if we achieve what we claw after, there will be nothing left worth having.